A new Atom is coming

Intel revealed details of the Atom successor known as Pine Trail today and the platform looks to be even more impressive with an integrated memory controller and graphics. We also have some news about Intel’s Moblin netbook-style operating system that sees a major refresh today.
Earlier this week Intel took the wraps off a couple of exciting new mobility advancements in the world of netbook and nettop PCs.  First on the list is the first public disclosure of the next-generation Intel Atom platform, codenamed Pine Trail.  With this new technology Intel is hoping to continue to keep a firm hold on the netbook market that has grown from basically zero to tens of millions of units in just a couple years time.  Even though VIA’s Nano processor was the first offering for just systems, the Intel Atom CPU was able to gain significant momentum and support and currently has nearly 300 design wins across the segment.

Even though we have seen the wild growth of netbooks slow some, Intel thinks the next big wave will come as the nettop market really starts to expand. 

Intel Pine Trail (Next-Gen Atom Platform) & Moblin Updates - Mobile 6

The upcoming move to Pine Trail will help reduce the bill of materials cost (BOM) to manufacturers by moving from a three-chip system to a two-chip configuration.  Current Intel Atom implementations that choose to use the Intel core logic chipset typically have a 945G-based north bridge that handles the memory controller and integrated graphics along with an ICH7 south bridge for I/O control.

The Pineview processor will now integrate with the memory controller and graphics in much the same way we know the upcoming Nehalem-based 32nm cores will do.  This is first time we will have seen an integrated memory controller and integrated graphics on a CPU in such a lower power environment and I’ll be curious to see how much power efficiency is gained from the move.

The base microarchitecture of the Pineview processor remains unchanged from the current Atom CPU though (HyperThreading remains as well) today we might see frequency increases when this product is launched.  Interestingly, unlike the forth coming 32nm Westmere product, the Pineview Atom processor will in fact integrate the CPU cores, memory controller and integrated graphics on a single 45nm die, not just a single substrate.

The I/O will still be handled by an external chip, codenamed Tiger Point that will likely be just an upgrade ICH chip though Intel hasn’t specified yet.

Intel Pine Trail (Next-Gen Atom Platform) & Moblin Updates - Mobile 7

The move to this two-chip solution (which we should note the NVIDIA ION platform offers when paired with Atom) will allow motherboards to be built with just a four layer PCB since trace routing will be much simpler.  Intel does say that fanless systems could be built on the Pine Trail platform but that is reliant on “configuration tradeoffs depending on scenario power workload.” 

Also noted here is that Intel claims the performance of the platform will increase – just not by how much.  The Pine Trail CPU will offer “higher processor performance and increased graphics performance” but I don’t know if we are seeing changes to the microarchitecture or just performance improvements indicative of moving the memory controller and graphics cores onto the same chip.

Intel Pine Trail (Next-Gen Atom Platform) & Moblin Updates - Mobile 8

The second big announcement from Intel for the netbook market is the beta release of Moblin v2.0, a Linux-based operating system being developed by Intel internally for use on phones, MIDs, netbook and nettops.

Intel Pine Trail (Next-Gen Atom Platform) & Moblin Updates - Mobile 9

The goals of Moblin are simple – bring a better computing experience to netbooks that was previously possible due to the overall slower hardware performance compared to traditional computers.  Intel claims that Moblin v2.0 is “optimized for Intel Atom” processors and we are curious in what regard this is true.  It would be possible for Intel’s software engineers to really custom code the OS for Atom’s architecture to a degree standard OS developers could not.  Being able to precisely know what hardware Moblin is on could potentially have great benefits for boot times and battery life.

Intel Pine Trail (Next-Gen Atom Platform) & Moblin Updates - Mobile 10

The OS is much more like the original ASUS Eee PC operating system than like Windows 7, but the potential looks good for this to develop into a well-rounded option for a basic user interface to a netbook.

There is a cute little demonstration video about Moblin v2.0, now publicly available, here:

Final Thoughts

Intel’s move to the Pine Trail platform is more dramatic than I initially though when first reading the standard press release.  By integrating a memory controller and graphics core in the same die as the single or dual-core Atom processors, Intel has undertaken a much more complicated task than simply glueing on these parts to the same substrate as the Atom CPU. 

This is obviously indicative of Intel’s determination to make the Atom processor and platform a better competing solution when pitted against the likes of VIA’s Nano processor or NVIDIA’s ION chipset.  The Nano CPU has been dominant in terms of raw processing performance (even though the Atom seems to have most of the design wins) and has even found its way into Dell’s new ultra-small-form-factor server, the “Fortuna” announced today as well.  Add to that the fact that NVIDIA’s ION chipset offers much better graphical performance and video decode acceleration than the 945G chipset and Intel obviously feels they need to keep up, even in a market they already dominate.